Doug Morris has moved from the bottom of the music business, when one of his jobs was to hand-deliver royalty checks to a successful songwriter, to the top over the course of his half-century in the industry, becoming arguably the most powerful man at the biggest major label in the world, Universal Music Group.
During his steady ascendance through the decades, he was a power broker at Atlantic Records, Warner Bros. Records and MCA records, but he got his start as an assistant for the songwriter of “Twist and Shout” and “Hang on Sloopy.”
He’s helmed labels that have released records by some of the world’s biggest talents, including AC/DC, U2, Jay-Z, Beyonce and hundreds of others. He is currently the chairman and CEO of Universal.
He is not without controversy, though. Morris oversaw labels during both the vinyl and the CD eras, and helped transform the music business into a multimillion-dollar industry that had virtually cornered the market on the sale of recorded music. His companies were responsible for milking impressively rich profit margins out of the sale of plastic, vinyl and cardboard, the vehicles through which the business delivered its music during the 20th century.
When the major labels digitized its music onto compact discs, however, the labels failed to see that transforming verses and choruses into 1s and 0s enabled them to be transferred onto computers. Once in that form, they could be swapped with the click of a mouse. Morris became a symbol of the labels’ lack of foresight. With the arrival of Napster, Morris and Universal’s team of lawyers went into full attack mode, fighting the technological advances tooth and nail.
This new business model left him and many in the major label system dumfounded. "There's no one in the record company that's a technologist," Morris famously told Wired magazine in 2007. "That's a misconception writers make all the time, that the record industry missed this. They didn't. They just didn't know what to do. It's like if you were suddenly asked to operate on your dog to remove his kidney. What would you do?"
Morris announced in February 2010 that he will step down as CEO of Universal Music at the beginning of 2011. He will, however, continue to be chairman of the company.